Wibble Wednesday: The sin of Sodom, revisited (Judges 19–21)

Loyal readers, you may have thought I disappeared! I kind of did. End of the school year was crazy, and life has been otherwise complicated as well. But I return to finish off the book of Judges.

We can finish out Judges, disjointed selection of myths that it is, and move on into a subject dear to the authors’ hearts: namely, the foundation of the monarchy. But first, as a segue, we’re going to see just how bad non-monarchical Israel really is.

Short snarky summary: Some towns in Israel are full of rapists. Surprisingly, the rest of Israel recognizes this as the extraordinary aberration that it is and seeks to eradicate it. They manage to fuck it up horribly and end up deciding that the best way to fix it is with more rape.

This story begins and ends with the same reminder that preceded the original story, that this is a tale from the days before Israel had a king. I’ve maybe hammered this into the ground by now, but Judges, particularly the bits at the end, comes across as a cautionary pro-monarchy work, indicating just how screwed up a society without strong central authority gets. One way to read Judges cohesively is as a story of decline: you start with these strong go-getters like Ehud and Deborah, who rescue the land in its early days, and then you see something of a dissolution of the moral fiberm even among the leaders. Gideon’s OK but his descendants are cartoonishly evil; Jephthah may repel the Ammonites but he also commits filicide and genocide after his victory; Samson’s a strong guy but hardly a moral exemplar; and the story of Micah has no characters express any virtues at all.

Definitely the explicit mentions of anarchy in this story read that way, because this is a really nasty little tale we get in Chapter 19. The basic frame is that a man’s concubine fled back to her father’s house, way over in a whole ‘nother tribe, and so her man ends up going on a long journey to reclaim her. For reasons the story doesn’t make clear, his father-in-law keeps pressing him to stay and relax, but he wants to get home. The narrative significance of the father-in-law’s pushiness appears to be that he gets a late start, and ends up having to stop for the night without getting as far as he’d hoped, and ends up in the tribal territory of Benjamin, instead of back in his home tribe of Ephraim. A big deal is made of the fact that, instead of stopping into Jebus, a city populated by Gentiles, he pushed onwards to Gibeah to encamp, where a nice old man from the countryside took them in and showed them hospitality (hospitality is always a sign of the Good Guys).

However, while he’s getting comfortable in his host’s home, the townsmen come up to surround the house and demand that he be delivered to them for (presumably forcible) sexytimes. Was this… a thing in the ancient Near East? Because it’s basically the story of Sodom, and it seems more like a slander to be used against your enemies than anything which would become a standard cultural practice. Distrust of outsiders, OK, that’s pretty common. Assaulting and raping travelers on the road, yeah, regrettably plausible. But going out and demanding your compatriots deliver their foreign guests up for abuse seems awfully odd. I suppose we’re supposed to read this as widespread lawlessness, but, still, as a cultural norm for a community, it seems to not ring true to me. I’m inclined to read this as a cheap shot at Gibeahites rather than a story meant to read as historically plausible.

As in the Sodom story, the host offers an alternative target for sexual aggression, his daughter and the man’s concubine (which, uh, isn’t his to offer even by the standards of the time, but, hey, roll with me here), but instead the guest takes matters into his own hands and pushes his concubine out. They rape her to death—like you do—and in the morning the man is surprised when she doesn’t get up when he commands it. I am beginning to see why she ran away in the first place, because this dude is not exactly covering himself in glory. Then he goes home, dismembers her, and sends one piece circulating to each of the twelve tribes to raise outrage at her treatment.

Chapter 20 deals with the result of this publicity. “All Israel” (although, we’ll see, one tribe isn’t included) comes in conference with the widower at Mizpah. There are 400,000 fighting men, which is a little weird, since throughout the book of Judges, the number of draftable troops have been on the low side, suggesting that the numbers from the Torah weren’t being used, and now all of a sudden we have a fighting force much closer to the comically large one posited in the Book of Numbers. After a brief recapitulation of the story from the last Chapter, the fighting force is incensed enough to essentially wage war on the town of Gibeah, which is massively outmatched. They make overtures of peace towards Benjamin as a whole, suggesting that if they just let the Israelite army punish this one town, the rest of the tribe won’t be held accountable, but Benjamin doesn’t take the offer and now the war is between the non-Benjaminite tribes and Benjamin.

The Benjaminite army, the text informs us, is 26,000 men (700 of whom are apparently left-handed crack sling-wielders); Israel is 400,000. The results of a conventional battle between such forces seems kind of obvious, but the Israelites get their asses handed to them twice with casualties of 40,000 dead. That’s actually a little odd, even by the conventions of this story: in Judges, smaller righteous groups overcome large unrighteous groups all the time, but the narrative has presented Israel as the good guys here, which doesn’t jibe with that at all. Particularly unusual during this is that God is apparently chatting with the Israelite leaders (verses 20:18, 20:23, 20:28) in between these defeats, and has nothing constructive to add. So somehow a larger force, which includes the incarnation and advice of the Lord God, keeps getting repelled with massive casualties. I’m not sure what to make of that at all, narratively.

Finally the Israelites decide that strategy might work where force fails, and conducts a feint to draw the Benjaminite troops away from the town, which works and results in both the sack of the town of Gibeah the near-complete massacre of the Benjaminite army. Then they sack the rest of the Benjaminite towns and kill their inhabitants, so presumably the only members of the tribe left are rural, nomadic, or the holdouts who fled from the battle. The first two groups are pretty much ignored in the narrative, so the entire Tribe of Benjamin is now down to 600 men cooped up in the hills

Chapter 21 is a bizarre reversal of everything which has gone before; a charitable reader might read it as in favor of clemency but it mostly presents the nation of Israel as immoderate and thoughtless. See, they promised back at Mizpah not to give their daughters in marriage to Benjaminites. Then they killed most of the Benjaminites, including all the women. Between those two acts, it looks a lot like that tribe will be at the very least unrepresented in the larger community, and possibly extinct. And Israel’s very sad about this state of affairs, even though it’s the totally foreseeable consequence of their own actions. So they really want to find people not bound by the oath of Mizpah to ensure the continuation of the tribe. To their relief, there is a community, Jabesh-gilead, which didn’t join the assembly at Mizpah.

A sensible use of this information would be to provide some sort of inducement for the Jabesh-gileadites to give their daughters to Benjaminits in marriage. That would work, but instead the Israelite army decides the best approach to this problem would be to kill every male and non-virgin in Jabesh-gilead and then marry off the 400 virgins to Benjamin. But wait, there still aren’t enough brides to go around, and Israel really wants Benjamin back! So they suggest that Benjaminites hide by roadsides to abduct the young girls of Shiloh as they go out dancing.

This whole episode is, to me at least, morally incoherent. OK, inhospitality is a great crime, and one no more easily judged by the threat of sexual assault against visitors. I totally get the sin of Gibeah and the Israelite rage against them. But with each step away from Gibeah, their actions make less and less sense, and exemplify justice—even the justice of the time—less and less well. War with Benjamin was the order of the day, but the wholesale slaughter of their civilians was somewhat beyond the pale, and the recompense only augments the crime, bringing genocide and rape to people who did nothing wrong. Hey, wasn’t arbitrary rape what the whole war was supposed to be in protest of? Is all Israel supposed to be not only corrupt but irrational?

The good news is that the next book will get a bit more moral focus, because the rise of the monarchy is supposed to help with that (rather imperfectly, in my eyes, but we’ll get there when we get there). But, man, Judges. The bits of it we don’t read often are kinda sordid and more than a little mystifying.


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: The sin of Sodom, revisited (Judges 19–21)

  1. gsanders says:

    Just catching up on your return.

    Oh my, I kind of remember reading this, but it’s more horrifying than I even remembered.Your analysis of the degrading morals throughout Judges is interesting and does seem to fit well.

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